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Interview with Prof. Ian Hodder CMG

Interview with Prof. Ian Hodder CMG

On Thursday 10th October, Professor Ian Hodder - Director of the BIAA-supported Çatalhöyük Research Project - was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for services to archaeology and UK/Turkey relations. We caught up with Ian after his investiture to offer our congratulations and to ask him to reflect on his influential career as an archaeologist, as well as his 25 years' experience of working in Turkey.


What does it mean to you to be made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for services to archaeology and UK/Turkey relations?

It is of course nice to have the work of so many people who worked at the site over so many years recognized. I see the award as for all of the team. But there are a couple of things that make the award especially nice for me. First is that it comes out of the blue, completely unexpected and unlooked for. The second is that it is not so much an award for academic achievement but more an award for working with people and building communities. That was always part of what I wanted to do at Çatalhöyük and it is nice to have that recognized.

What was your motivation behind working in Turkey and excavating at the site of Çatalhöyük for 25 years?

I wanted to dig Çatalhöyük because it is an amazing site that I had learned about in James Mellaart’s lectures at the Institute of Archaeology in London when I was a student. More particularly I thought that the remarkable preservation of daily life in houses and all the associated symbolism would allow me to try out my ideas about a contextual archaeology and a reflexive approach to excavation. I felt that 'if I couldn't do it here I couldn't do it anywhere'.

I believe Çatalhöyük was your first excavation in Turkey, and after 25 years working there it must feel like a second home now? What are your lasting impressions of the country and what will you miss most?

I certainly grew to love Turkey and the Turkish people. I was always very well received by everyone; everyone was very kind and gracious. So I suppose it is the people I miss most, but also the impressive landscapes and the beautiful coast. And of course the food - there is nothing better than meze with raki on a warm starlit night on the Bosphorus! I plan to be back there a lot so I hope I will not be missing it too much.

Your expectations of Çatalhöyük must have been very different when you started in 1993. What were the biggest surprises and challenges you faced during the project?

Yes, when I first went there in the early 1990s the site was a very sorry mess with terrible erosion and very few visitors. It was a lot of work to turn things around. I suppose the biggest challenge was raising large amounts of funding year after year. Most sources give support for a limited number of years and it is difficult to maintain interest as the years tick by. Finding new ideas for raising money and keeping sponsors happy was a real challenge. But also on the site itself, the complexities of digging Çatalhöyük proved to be immense; luckily I had a brilliant team, led by some exceptional people, to rise to that challenge and find solutions.

Did you think that you would end up focusing upon the beginnings of belief systems when you started?

I always knew that part of the task would be to make sense of the belief systems - and in the end that proved easier than questions about climate and land use! But what I had not expected was that we would turn so fully to the question of religion. We have ended up publishing a whole series of books on religion at Çatalhöyük and in the Middle East. This was partly again to do with funding since we had a series of grants from the John Templeton Foundation which involved bringing theologians, anthropologists, and religious scholars to Çatalhöyük to hold seminars about the interpretation of the site. This proved a very exciting initiative - hence the long series of books we have published on various aspects of this topic.

Can you explain your interest in the entanglement theory and how Çatalhöyük can present this in practice?

My engagement with entanglement came out of the Çatalhöyük work. Entanglement is about the dependencies between humans and things and it became clear that the people that lived at Çatalhöyük spent many of their energies caring for the buildings and landscape they had created. For example any mud-brick building against which midden built up would quickly erode and become unstable. So the inhabitants had to build retaining walls between the houses and the midden. We have found very many walls that had collapsed as a result of subsidence into the varying underlying deposits. People often had to dig excessively deep foundations in order to construct a stable house. So the house at Çatalhöyük drew humans into its care. Put another way, once constructed the house kept changing and entrapping humans into more work and labor. These are some of the key ideas of entanglement – human-thing co-dependence and entrapment.

Do you think you have exhausted what there is to learn about Çatalhöyük with current methods and analyses?

Not at all. Even including Mellaart’s work only about 5% of the site has been explored. It is enormous both in space and in depth. We have only excavated a small number of houses in comparison to the mound as a whole, so we do not know how much variability there is across the site; there may be whole parts of the site in which special activities take place, and we understand very little of how the site grew, expanded and declined. There is a lot of work still to be done.

What would you like to see happen at Çatalhöyük in the future?

I am very pleased and excited that the excavations at Çatalhöyük will continue under the direction of Çiler Çilingiroğlu from Ege University. She has made a great start and is developing her own ideas and strategy for future work. I hope in the future to visit and give as much support and advice as I can.

What are you going to do in your summers now?

I know it is a cliché to say ‘I want to spend more time with my family’ but that about sums it up. 2019 was the first summer I have not dug since I was 16, so it has been quite a change and one I hope to keep enjoying.

What is the significance of living archives and their importance for future archaeological research?

Archaeologists have long debated the issue of how to store and manage site and survey records and there have been many responses to the build up of ‘grey literature’. One very positive outcome has been the possibility of using these data to build up ‘big data’ for the study of long-term and large-scale trends. My concern has been that it often becomes difficult to interrogate data archives in order to explore the conditions of their production. The data that we produce as archaeologists are very much influenced or determined by the questions we ask and the assumptions that we bring. But it is often not easy to re-establish the context of data production. In addition the archives are often difficult to understand and make sense of and they quickly become static and un-responsive to new questions. The idea of the living archive that we are producing at Çatalhöyük with funding from the Getty is to produce a very large database (the Çatalhöyük database is about 5 terabytes in size) in a way that is easy to access. We are also providing context for the database so that its assumptions can be critiqued, and we are encouraging new users to add to the database by making new links and tables within it.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and how would you advise aspiring archaeologists?

I suppose the best piece of advice might be ‘never give up!’ Doing archaeology on any scale is often difficult whether it’s a matter of the long hours doing repetitive tasks, often in difficult climates, or whether it’s a matter of raising money of dealing with permissions, or a matter of living at close quarters with some very strange people! Archaeology needs a lot of patience and willingness to work collaboratively with others, often in difficult situations. But it is worth it in the end and utterly fulfilling. So, never give up.


Prof. Ian Hodder CGM FBA is Dunlevie Family Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. He was Director of the BIAA-supported Çatalhöyük Research Project from 1993-2017.

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